Kansas have endured lineup changes and internal power struggles; record company cold feet and radio station snubs; band members feeling the hand of God and afterwards singing – literally – His praises, or snorting mounds of coke, getting their hands on whole gaggles of groupies, and knocking back booze like it was labelled The Elixir Of Life.
Basically, Kansas have gone through the kind of trials and tribulations that would have caused many bands to implode, but instead they still collectively live to tell the tale – and sell the T-shirt.
The story of Kansas (the band, not the US State at one end of the Yellow Brick Road) began in 1971 in the Kansas city of Topeka. Already high-school friends, guitarist Kerry Livgren (who had been in another band also called Kansas), bassist Dave Hope and drummer Phil Ehart named their group after their home state, then switched to White Clover after adding classically trained violinist Robby Steinhardt.
Vocalist/keyboardist Steve Walsh and guitarist Rich Williams completed a six-piece line-up in 1972, and they reverted to the name Kansas again. Visually there was nothing about these six hairy youths that would set young girls’ pulses racing; none of them had anything like pin-up potential. Some were bulky, others skinny; some had enormous, tumbleweed hair; one didn’t even bother to change out of his work overalls before going on stage. But when they plugged in, fired up and put out, Kansas had something truly remarkable.
“Three things made us unique,” Phil Ehart says. “The songs that Kerry wrote, Steve’s vocals and Robby’s violin.”
It was a unique sound that, over the decades, would help Kansas sell millions of records. During that time the band’s strong religious beliefs (one of them was ordained as an Anglican minister after leaving) sometimes tore them apart, making such longevity unthinkable. But – whether or not with the help of God – they weathered the storms.
Although Jefferson Airplane’s Grunt Records expressed an early interest, the labels didn’t take Kansas seriously. Eventually they were signed to the Kirshner label (run by legendary impresario Don Kirshner) on the strength of the song Can I Tell You. It became the opening track of Kansas, their 1974 debut – which the group then had to wait seven months for Kirshner to release.
No doubt helped by the exposure from a support slot on a Mott The Hoople tour, Kansas sold a creditable 100,000 copies the album made the lower reaches of the Billboard chart. Radio still ignored them, but 250 concerts per year kept up their peckers and their profile.
Celebrating ‘Virgin land of forest green/Dark and stormy plains’, Livgren wrote Song For America, which became the title track of the band’s second album, on a jet while gazing down on his homeland.
The album – which also included the eight-minute Lamplight Symphony – represented a huge artistic growth. It also sold more than twice as many copies as its predecessor and made the US Top 60.
Having enjoyed working with producer Jeff Glixman, the group continued at a furious pace with a second ’75 album, Masque. The pressure on Kirshner for a hit single resulted in the flop It Takes A Woman’s Love, the usual hectic touring, slightly increased radio profile, static sales figures, and a whole lot of confusion.
Kansas opened for Queen, Bad Company and Jefferson Airplane, and morale remained strong, but gradually Livgren’s grip on the songwriting tightened. With Steve Walsh suffering writers’ block, and the group having been warned that unless they broke through this time it was all over, everything came to a head with Kansas’s fourth album.
Leftoverture was recorded in the New Orleans swamps, where the snapping jaws of alligators encircling the studio provided an apposite metaphor. With the band having taken the decision to simply be themselves, Livgren wrote five of the songs on the album and contributed to the other three. Glixman’s slick production effortlessly disguised the weightiness of The Wall and the six-part Magnum Opus. The album’s soaring arrangements capture a time of supreme self-confidence.
Kansas had virtually completed the recording, when Livgren walked in with a final song and insisted the group delay their flight home and add it to the record. Articulating the guitarist’s growing spiritualism, Carry On Wayward Son began with an a capella chorus and stirring guitar motif.
It became the hit they were looking for, reaching No.11 and helping Kansas to sell four million copies of the Leftoverture album. “It was an autobiographical song,” Livgren says. “I was telling myself to keep on looking and I’d find what I was seeking.”
Until they began headlining arenas, all the members of Kansas were on the same, fixed, income. While they all insist today that no hostility was caused by Livgren’s domination of the creative process, Livgren confirms that it eventually became a thorny issue: “Suddenly we were caught up in the excitement of starting to make some money. I was still so naïve, it didn’t even occur to me that Steve [Walsh] might resent success for an album he hadn’t written anything for.”
“Some of us found that situation tough,” Rich Williams acknowledges now. “The money that starts coming in is used to pay off the recording debt. And although the band begin to see a return, suddenly the writers are receiving very large cheques indeed. ‘How come he gets this and I don’t?’ It bred some animosity.”
The pragmatic Phil Ehart comments: “Kerry was just so prolific, everyone just kept out of his way. We accepted everything he offered because it was all so great.”
The writing was more evenly distributed for 1977’s Point Of Know Return, which again outsold its predecessor, and spawned the hit single Dust In The Wind. But during the recording of the album, Steve Walsh informed his stunned band-mates of his intention to leave for a solo career. Fortunately the singer was dissuaded.
“Lots of money was now coming in,” Ehart explains. “People were saying how great we were, and some of us started to believe those things. We’d come from meagre backgrounds, and some of us couldn’t even afford cars. Then boom – you can buy almost anything you want.”
“When you’re in your early 20s and suddenly become famous, and you’ve got women literally chasing after you, it’s almost impossible not to give in to temptation,” Livgren adds. “What began to change us was success. It was all very satisfying, but left an inner void in us all. When your dream comes true, where do you go from there?”
Livgren had no time whatsoever for drugs, and began to pursue a more spiritual path away from those who did. Bassist Dave Hope was one who dabbled in narcotics. So much so that his partners feared they would find him dead as a result.
To Kansas’s credit, 1978’s million-selling double live album Two For The Show, recorded over the previous three tours, showed no signs of the band’s inner turmoil. It was something of rarity among live albums for having no overdubs . “At least two other well-known bands of the era put out live records and cheated by going back into the studio. With Two For The Show, what you bought was an exact representation of a Kansas concert,” Livgren says proudly.
The following year’s Monolith album was self-produced. But despite containing such notable tracks as On The Other Side and People Of The South Wind it was far less successful than Point Of Know Return. Worse still, Kansas failed to make the US Top 20 with 1980’s Audio-Visions.
By this point, both Livgren and Walsh were pursuing parallel solo careers. Guitarist Livgren released Seeds Of Change, while vocalist/keyboardist Walsh recorded the less rapturously received Schemer-Dreamer, which had contributions from various Kansas alumni plus a guitarist called Steve Morse, more of whom later.
“The climb back down the mountain is nowhere near as much fun as ascending,” Livgren says of Kansas’s diminishing fortunes. “At least we’d established enough success to ensure our band would survive. It didn’t seem like a crisis.”
The confidence that Livgren and bassist Dave Hope felt was derived from a ‘higher place’, with both men having fully converted to Christianity. The guitarist admits that his beliefs weren’t taken too seriously, or rarely treated as sensitively as he wished: “The band joked that I’d joined a Religion Of The Month Club because I’d go from one doctrine to another,” he says. “But when I became a Christian I was completely focused.”
“My ‘born-again’ experience was huge,” says Dave Hope, who became a fully ordained Anglican minister. “We were between Chicago and St Louis when I felt the presence of God come down onto me. I was filled with an incredible love that dissolved my heart. I knew immediately that it was God, because I’d never felt such tenderness before. I’d been up for so many nights before, snorting coke and drinking, I knew it wasn’t a drug high.”
Hope agrees with Livgren’s assertion that the rest of Kansas had a hard time accommodating the pair’s new-found beliefs. “Nobody raises an eyebrow in rock’n’roll circles if you’re drugged out of your mind, gay or sleeping with 25 people a night, but mention Christianity and you’re treated like a pariah.”
Ehart views it differently: “The band comprised a Catholic, a Baptist, a part-Jew, an agnostic and an atheist. Kerry’s religion was fine, but he wanted to make Kansas a sounding board for his beliefs. That sort of pontificating just didn’t sit comfortably with us, especially Steve who had to sing with conviction.”
Citing the lyrics that Livgren had begun writing for Audio-Visions among his concerns – Hold On had sermonised: ‘Outside your door He is waiting/Waiting for you/ Sooner or later you know/He’s got to get through’ – Walsh left to form the band Streets. His replacement was John Elefante. But the new singer sounded out of his depth on Kansas’s 1982 album Vinyl Confessions.
“Material-wise, Vinyl Confessions was fairly strong, but we weren’t sure who we wanted to be,” Livgren muses now. “With hindsight, John Elefante was very inexperienced, and the endless search for the next single was taking over. We were departing more and more from what Kansas was originally about.”
Perhaps proof of that, Robby Steinhardt’s substance abuse prompted his departure from the band, reducing Kansas to a quintet for 1983’s Drastic Measures. For Livgren, when Steinhardt left he took with him Kansas’s signature sound. “The violin was gone, so was Steve [Walsh]. I wasn’t even sure what Kansas was any more. I completely withdrew from the group.”
Bassist Dave Hope, meanwhile, had also reached breaking point: “People were still offering me drugs, and girls were asking where the party was. I couldn’t be an alcoholic and work in a liquor store.”
So together Livgren and Hope left to form a group called A.D., pouring salt into the open wound of their former partners. Kansas’s record company sued A.D., and made it as difficult as possible for them to release their records into the secular market; touring opportunities consisted of churches and small clubs. “Because I wrote the songs,” Livgren says, “when I quit it was like trying to leave the army. It got very ugly.”
Although there was never an official split, Kansas dropped off the radar. It was Ehart who invited Walsh and Williams to regroup in 1986, also tapping bassist Billy Greer from Walsh’s band Streets. But the catalyst was celebrated Dixie Dregs guitarist Steve Morse, whom Ehart had met at a Robert Plant gig.
“He asked if anything would be happening again with Kansas – and even offered to audition,” Ehart says, laughing. “Stylistically, Steve’s joining was a big departure, but it brought us lots of credibility.”
From the outside, Livgren had mixed feelings about the reunion. He was pleased to see Kansas working again, but he thought they should have mothballed the name. “The personnel and the music were so different [from before] that they should’ve started with a clean slate, like the guys from Yes did with Asia,” he offers.
Later voted the world’s best guitarist by Guitar Player magazine for five consecutive years, and now playing in Deep Purple, Morse played on two Kansas albums – Power and In The Spirit Of Things, both of which were superlative melodic hard rock – before jumping ship due to the interference of MCA Records, to whom Kansas were now signed.
“I came from a group where I had almost total musical control, and MCA were making us record ballads,” Morse recalls. It was seven years before Kansas’s next studio album, Freaks Of Nature. Released by the small independent label Intersound during the grunge explosion, it (along with the band’s new violinist, David Ragsdale) went almost unnoticed.
Three years later, Kansas teamed up with the London Symphony Orchestra to re-record many of the band’s own best-songs, resulting in the album Always Never The Same. By this time Robby Steinhardt had ended speculation about his death and rejoined Walsh, Ehart, Williams and Greer in Kansas.
“I’d heard Robby had his act together again, and without telling him I went to check him out at a small club,” explains Ehart. “What I saw convinced me he had to be in Kansas again.” “It’s not only Robby’s violin playing that makes his contribution so special,” Billy Greer says, “his voice matches Steve’s so brilliantly.”
Surprisingly, at the turn of the millennium Livgren also returned to Kansas (albeit on a temporary basis) after a 17-year absence. He had toured sporadically with the band, but now he jumped in up to the neck, composing all the material for Somewhere To Elsewhere, and playing on and coproducing the album.
Dave Hope also doubled up on bass alongside Greer, and Steinhardt sang the odd lead vocal to give Walsh a break. On paper it sounds as if it should have turned out as muddled as a boxful of old guitar leads, but Icarus II was an obvious sequel to the Masque standard Icarus (Borne On Wings Of Steel), and the entire record had a classic feel.
“My writing had come full circle,” Livgren explains. “I had 24 pieces of music that suited Kansas perfectly, so it made complete sense to make a new album with the original members.”
Ask Lindgren if he envisages a day when he’ll rejoin Kansas on a permanent basis, and you’re politely rebuffed: “I’ve learned not to answer that question,” he chuckles. “However you reply, you open a whole can of worms.”
In 2005 Kansas were in a position of having ground out a continued existence without the composer of their biggest hits, playing medium-sized theatres, their new releases limited to live albums, the DVD Device-Voice-Drum and reissues of their most popular music.
“Does that sadden me?” mused Livgren. “Maybe a little. But I’m pleased they’re still keeping this music alive. I hope they keep on doing it for as long as they can.”
This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 80, in April 2005. Steve Walsh announced his retirement in 2014, and was replaced by Ronnie Platt. Kansas' 16th album The Absence Of Presence is out now.